Last week, in Washington, DC, City Councilmember Harry Thomas, Jr., pleaded guilty to embezzling $350,000 in funds that had been earmarked primarily for youth sports programs. He was taking fancy vacations, driving a luxury car, and living a life high on the hog with monies he stole from his constituents in a fairly poor ward of the city.
Am I surprised? No. Yet another politician feeling powerful and entitled to stealing from the public weal. Have I been ranting and raving? Yes. Here’s why
Last week, just outside of Washington, DC, I found a $100 bill on the ground right in front of a Staples office store. My 12-year-old daughter was with me. I had a flash thought about how nice it would be to pocket the money, but immediately decided to walk into the store and give it to the manager – with the expectation and hope that someone would soon miss it and come back to retrieve it. I also wanted to show my daughter what I believed was the right thing to do.
All the store staff were talking about it when my daughter and I went up to the cash register to ring out. I told the cashier that I had been the one to find the bill and hand it to the manager. He looked at me like I had two heads, and then said, “You’re a really good person. Good things will come back to you.” I just shrugged my shoulders – as far as I was concerned, I had done the right thing and the incident was over.
But this small moment has engendered an inordinate amount of conversation and philosophizing over the past few days.
A run down of the various reactions to my find.
My husband: believes that finders are keepers, but probably would have offered his phone number to the manager and asked that if anyone came in looking for something of value that he found outside, they could call him. Definitely would not have handed it to anyone in Staples, as he believes they would simply have pocketed it. In response to the cashier’s posit that good things would come back to me, wondered if perhaps this WAS the good karma and I had squandered it. Great.
My daughter: wanted me to keep the money and buy her things.
My teenage son: totally in the finders keepers camp, and thinks I’m a softy and an idiot.
My 10-year-old son: thinks I should have kept it, but didn’t have strong feelings about it.
Various friends agreed with my basic instinct. We discussed the possibility of keeping the bill but making a donation to a non-profit organization, although one friend says it wasn’t mine to give away. Another would have looked for a homeless person on the street (although there aren’t easily found homeless people in suburban strip malls not accessible by anything but cars on a late Tuesday night.)
One colleague says she would have done exactly what I would have. Another noted that it would depend on how much she might have really needed the money herself.
In all cases, the situation raised provocative questions and interesting conversation, and definitely made everyone stop and think for a few minutes.
I remain convinced that I did the right thing (even though, out of curiosity, my husband called the store the next night and asked if anyone had found a $100 bill that he had lost, and of course, the manager said that no one had.) That bill simply was not mine to keep – and I believe that showing my daughter that the honest thing to do is to return that which is not yours (if you can) when you find it was an important lesson.
And then, two days later, the newspaper headlines screamed political malfeasance and fraud and hypocrisy. Never mind $100 – this politician believed that he was entitled to $350,000 in public monies to line his personal pocket.
My husband was taken aback by my reaction to this news item. Even though I don’t live in the District, I took it very personally. Not only had I just given back a measly $100 that I could have legitimately claimed as my own and would have helped with the groceries this week, I am also a fundraiser, and I know how I would feel if a colleague with whom I worked skimmed off money that I had worked hard to raise to help our cause.
So in the end, I don’t have $100 to spend either frivolously or wisely, and Councilmember Harry Thomas, Jr. is heading to jail. And I am left with the uneasy feeling that there is still some imbalance in the universe when elected officials believe they can get away with robbery … until they’re caught
And now I’m really curious: What would you have done?
Photo by GizMoDoc via Flickr